By WARREN FURUTANI
Although much of my time in the California State Assembly has been mired in addressing the state budget crisis, one legislative accomplishment I am very proud of is the passage of Assembly Bill 37. This bill conferred honorary college degrees at all levels of higher education to Nisei whose educations were cut short or aborted by Executive Order 9066.
Interestingly, AB 37 passed both the Assembly and the Senate unanimously and was quickly signed by then-Gov. Schwarzenegger. Then when the UC and CSU systems were called upon to enact this new law, we were met with obstacles similar to the situation at the University of Southern California.
The UC system initially said they did not give out honorary degrees anymore. Fortunately, leaders within the system with more empathy and political savvy prevailed rather than the bureaucrats who sought to derail the effort on administrative grounds.
The CSU system never likes the Legislature to tell them what to do and intimated that if we asked nicely rather than mandated it, they would get it done. Again, empathetic leadership prevailed and the result was moving and educational graduation ceremonies at multiple UC and CSU campuses across the state.
By the way, the community colleges statewide had the largest and the most ceremonies throughout the state. In fact, several campuses had already bestowed honorary degrees to Nisei even before there was a law.
Truth be told, many people had the same idea. I was able to institutionalize it in statute and with a law in place many were able to push the concept further. Jon Kaji was one of those folks who had the idea, but the application of AB 37 in Jon’s case related to a private institution that we, the state, don’t have direct control over.
So USC’s first response to the honorary degrees idea was a no. Now, with a more enlightened administration, they are conferring honorary degrees, but only to those who are still alive, and posthumously awarding alumni status to those who are deceased.
Like many in the Japanese American community, I add my voice in saying that honorary alumni status is not enough. In fact, it adds insult to injury when you look at the role the chancellor of USC played during the incarceration of Nisei students during WWII.
Reading the names of those Nisei who were yanked out of USC by Executive Order 9066 and giving an honorary degree posthumously to the family would go a long way in redressing the shameful act of then-USC Chancellor Rufus B. von KleinSmid. His unwillingness to forward the official transcripts of the Nisei students seeking to continue their college education elsewhere — because to him it would be aiding and abetting the enemy — is a travesty and should be apologized for.
USC is an excellent educational institution, and doing the right thing relative to this situation would further enhance this reputation, which now stands tarnished.
Furutani represents the 55th Assembly District and is a former member of the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees.